Modern Family
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Modern Family

After the death of her husband, Marilyn Berger found happiness in a surprising new role. The 74-year-old, who never had kids of her own, is raising Danny, an 8-year-old orphan from the streets of Ethiopia.

Veteran journalist Marilyn Berger is not by nature an impulsive person. Her friends describe her as "measured," "very thoughtful," "an intellectual." Yet Berger, now 74, has fallen deeply, passionately -- and instantly -- in love twice in her life, with two strong-willed males who could not be more different from each other.

The first time around the magic moment happened when Berger, then a globe-trotting diplomatic correspondent for NBC, found herself fixed up with Don Hewitt, the brash creator and executive producer of CBS's 60 Minutes. They hit it off from the moment he called to make a first date -- to the point where Hewitt inquired, "If it works out on Thursday, can we have dinner on Friday and Saturday, too?" By the end of that 1976 weekend Berger had found her life's companion. "He was a really good-looking guy, full of vitality -- he laughed a lot," Berger recalls. "We went out for Chinese food and my fortune cookie read: 'You are doomed to be happy in marriage.'"

And indeed she was. Berger, who had been based in Washington, quit her job to be with him. She moved back to New York City, her hometown, and found a new career anchoring public affairs programs. She was 43 when the couple wed (Hewitt was 56), in 1979, a period before the advent of today's fertility technology. "I wanted to be a mother but never connected with the right guy," she says. "By the time I connected it was too late."

She put aside those maternal yearnings for nearly three decades. But a chance encounter far from home -- on a dusty Ethiopian street populated by vendors and beggars -- upended her well-ordered, adult-centered life. Berger had gone to Addis Ababa in January 2008 to research a magazine article on Rick Hodes, MD, an American physician who works in Mother Teresa's Mission caring for desperately sick children. Chloe Malle, the daughter of Berger's friend Candice Bergen and then a Brown University senior, tagged along on the trip and one afternoon suggested walking from the clinic to their hotel -- a mile away.

During that walk they saw a little beggar holding his hand out. "He was looking up, as dirty as he could be in a green T-shirt, with these long eyelashes," Berger recalls. But what really got her attention was the child's back, which was curved in a bizarre hump. Dr. Hodes, an internist now familiar with many third-world illnesses, would later explain to Berger that this deformity signified tuberculosis of the spine. Fatal if left untreated, it is common in Ethiopia but virtually unknown in America. As they walked away, Berger remembers, "I was just haunted by this little boy." Says Malle, "Marilyn had created this entire connection between her and that boy in her mind."

Finding Her Son

Back at the mission, Berger immediately told Hodes about the homeless boy with the ill-formed back, which prompted a search. Thanks to word of mouth the boy, Danny, was located and agreed to be examined at the clinic. He told them that he had fled his abusive stepfather and impoverished mother for the streets.

Danny was named a legal ward of Mother Teresa's Mission. Hodes, a single man who has adopted five Ethiopian children, eventually took Danny into his home and made arrangements for him to have spinal surgery in Ghana. "Marilyn saved Danny's life," Hodes says. "Without surgery he'd have died."

Berger, en route to Ethiopia on a reporting trip, stopped over in Ghana to visit Danny after the operation. "I saw him for a few hours and he was very thin," she says. "He had malaria. He was lying there like a sick puppy."

By then she was emotionally hooked. Several months later, when she heard that Hodes was coming to New York City on a fund-raising trip, she asked him to bring Danny for an extended visit with her and Hewitt. Fate then dealt another odd twist: A week after Danny's arrival, Hewitt, who had not been well, went to see a doctor and received a terrible diagnosis: pancreatic cancer.

The summer of 2009 was a trying time for the threesome. Hewitt was dying but opted for upbeat denial, refusing to acknowledge his illness. The couple's friends looked on in wonderment at this strange confluence of events. "We were back and forth to their house as Don got sicker," recalls Joan Ganz Cooney, a friend of Berger's for 30 years. "Marilyn was so happy as a mother. Don was proud of them, looking at the two of them and smiling as they played together. He liked Danny and he'd say, 'What a boy!'"

Hewitt died in August 2009. A grieving Berger buried him, then set about finding a local school that would take Danny. "It was such an incredible blessing to have Danny at a time when there was an enormous hole," says her friend Arlene Alda. Still, Berger agonized over whether she was doing the right thing for Danny, given her age. "I began to think, what would it mean to take in a child? My friends said, 'You're too old!' But my mother lived until she was 101. I feel good. If I can give him 10 years, he'll be 18. I hope I'll live longer than that."

These days Berger has a full household. Robert Fishman, her 24-year-old nephew and a Columbia Journalism School graduate, now lives with them. She has also hired a male student as a "manny" to come in at least twice a week so Danny has men in his daily life.

Raising Danny

Rick Hodes has been designated Danny's legal decision maker and Danny has taken Hodes as his last name. (With D.H. as his initials, Berger notes, he can use Don Hewitt's monogrammed possessions.) Under Ethiopian law, Berger is considered too old to legally adopt the boy, who is believed to be 8 and is now in second grade. But he will live with Berger -- permanently. "Danny is still in my life," Hodes explains. "But Marilyn is able to give him such opportunities. I could give him half a mattress. He's in a different world now."

Indeed, Berger took Danny skiing this winter in Aspen and later on a trip to Los Angeles, where he attended a private screening of How to Train Your Dragon and he played with Julia Roberts's twins. "I tried to tell him American people don't all live this way," says Berger, "but there he was in a plush screening room eating frozen custard."

A small, lively boy, Danny is grumpy this afternoon when Berger retrieves him from school. His teacher has just chastised him for being too boisterous during a baseball game in Central Park. He loves baseball so much that he has been sleeping with his mitt under his pillow. Berger hugs and comforts him and Danny takes her hand while crossing the street. Soon he is mischievously kicking a ball down the sidewalk. If he bears psychic wounds from his traumatic past, they are not visible. "He never asks, 'What if I had been left there?'" says Berger. "I've offered to take him back to Ethiopia to visit, but he says he wants to stay here."

Berger is keenly aware that Danny came along at a time when she would otherwise be bereft. "I read somewhere that mourning comes in waves," she says. "I have a feeling it's still coming -- sometimes I'll see Don's keys, his eyeglasses. We'll be having dinner and I'll think, without Danny I'd be having dinner alone."

Yet life with Danny astonishes her every day with moments of joy. "I am blissed out," says Berger, who transformed Hewitt's old office into a bright bedroom adorned with a Spider-Man comforter and matching rug. "Danny said he wants to call me mom. I told him I can't replace his mother, but I can be his American mother."

Formerly a late sleeper, Berger is now up at 7:30 a.m. to wake Danny. Afternoons find her supervising his piano lessons or playing catch in the park. And rather than go to the opera at night with widowed friends, she's at his bedside reading out loud. She shows me the book of jokes they have been giggling over of late. Her face turns incandescent when she talks about Danny. "Danny is a little Don," she says, "a very large personality even if he is a tiny figure. He does as much for me as I do for him. They say I saved his life, but he has also saved mine."

Berger is the author of This Is a Soul, a book about Rick Hodes that was published this past April by William Morrow.